On a day in 2015 when Walker Hayes really didn't need anything else to go wrong, the roof of his car fell down. Someone on the Internet swore thumbtacks could fix it, so Hayes borrowed blue, purple, pink and green tacks from his young daughter, Lela. Together, they went outside and patched up the upholstery. Lela was dazzled. She said they looked like stars.
Later that week, Hayes sat in his battered car in a Nashville Costco parking lot, waiting to clock in for his 4 a.m. shift, replaying a conversation he often had with himself: What, exactly, was the plan here? When he moved to Nashville a decade earlier, he landed a record deal and figured stardom would follow. Then, he lost the deal. And another one. Now in his mid-30s, with six kids, he was barely paying the bills by stocking Costco coolers, writing songs and piecing together gigs at local venues. Realistically, how long could this go on? He stared up his roof, covered in colorful thumbtacks. And he realized something.
"I was like, 'Man, I'm an idiot. I've got it so good,'" Hayes recalled: a wife who never told him to give up the music dream, kids who didn't care that he drove a beat-up Honda. He grabbed a styrofoam cup off the passenger seat floor and scratched out a lyric: "The sky ain't falling/It's just the roof of my car."
The line became the chorus of "Lela's Stars," which tells the above story in raw detail — only one example of work so candid that it started attracting attention. In November 2015, he got a call from Shane McAnally, a famed Nashville songwriter and producer for stars including Kenny Chesney and Miranda Lambert, who previously declined to sign Hayes to his publishing company as a songwriter. McAnally couldn't see his unique writing style working for other singers. But, after listening to Hayes's new material, McAnally decided that people needed to hear these songs. And he had to sign Hayes as an artist.
It was a somewhat risky choice, considering that Hayes's music includes spoken-word lyrics, difficult phrasing, beatboxing, whistling, pounding on tables, and building tracks in any way possible because he was too broke to afford a professional demo. Although he had earned a loyal following among Nashville tastemakers, pitching those offbeat songs to radio — the key to success in country music — would be a gamble.
In early 2016, Hayes quit Costco. A year later, he was announced as a flagship artist for McAnally and Jason Owen's new label, Monument Records. Eight months later, his first single, "You Broke Up With Me," cracked the top 30 on the radio airplay chart and is still climbing every week. Last week, his label announced his sophomore album, "boom.," will drop Dec. 8, more than 13 years after he moved to Nashville.
As Hayes plays concerts and visits country radio stations, he can tell his music is connecting in a way it never did years ago, when he was a fledgling artist on a major label and pressured into releasing singles that were considered "safe." He would watch as radio program directors' eyes glazed over.
These days, although his hip-hop-infused sound is polarizing, he has their attention. As he grows his fan base, he thinks what really strikes a nerve for his audience is when he sings about his struggles. Because now, he has a real story to tell.
"They don't want me to write a song about a Saturday night unless it's a Saturday night that actually went down," Hayes, 37, said last month, on the way to an afternoon performance at 98.7 (WMZQ-FM) in Rockville, Md. "To me, that makes the music so much better — I think that's standing out."
McAnally reiterates that even though Hayes's music doesn't sound like traditional country, his lyrics are authentic tales about real life — the cornerstone of the genre.
"People can complain about production, they can say that he's rapping, they can say that it's not the way Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash did it. But what they did do is tell their stories," McAnally said. "To me, he's not that different."
Hayes's upcoming album is a mix of moods, highs and lows. "Beautiful" describes the turning point in his on-again, off-again dating history with his wife, Laney. "Dollar Store" and "Beckett" celebrate the innocence of their children. "Beer in the Fridge" tackles a battle with alcohol. "Shut Up Kenny" (a tongue-in-cheek riff directed at Chesney) and "Prescriptions" are lighter and darker takes, respectively, on a former relationship.
When Hayes arrived in Nashville in July 2004, his main performing experience was playing at bars in his hometown of Mobile, Ala. Still, he seemed primed to be a breakout artist. He got a publishing deal relatively quickly, and then a record deal at Mercury, although when his producer was let go, Hayes was also dropped. Then he signed with Capitol Records and released two singles off his debut album, the twangy "Pants" in 2010 and chipper "Why Wait For Summer" in 2011. Both flopped on the radio.
As he bounced between publishing deals for years, he had many unreturned emails and phone calls. But after "the Costco year," as he calls it, when he got the McAnally stamp of approval and released two volumes of "8Tracks" on YouTube that started getting buzz around town, his phone suddenly lighted up with texts: "Miss you, bud. Want to write sometime?"
That was satisfying — though not as satisfying as penning the lead single,"You Broke Up With Me," co-written with Thomas Archer and Kylie Sackley, which gleefully informs an ex they've missed their chance. ("I ain't even fixin' to listen to your guilt trippin'/You're forgettin', girl, you made your bed and didn't want me in it.") He's actually talking about those who rejected him in the music business.
"When you get beat up by Nashville, people vanish," he said. "It was lonely there for a little while."
"You Broke Up With Me" is the most radio- friendly song on Hayes's album, even as Hayes squeezes together more words in one verse than some songs have in their entirety. However, listeners can still project their own experience, something that doesn't always happen in his music, usually packed with specificities.
"You have some [radio] people who were like, 'This is exactly what belongs on our station,' and some were like, 'Nope, ain't playing it. Never going to play it,' " Hayes said with a laugh. Then, a few initial naysayers saw the sales numbers (now more than 135,000 copies sold) and decided to give it a try.
The song got a boost from early supporter and iHeartMedia host Bobby Bones, who played it on his morning radio show for millions, and placement on SiriusXM's "The Highway" channel. In addition, Hayes's radio promotional team focused on big cities that might have a less conservative country fan base — he's currently getting lots of spins from major stations in places such as Chicago, Boston and Los Angeles.
Seeing Hayes break out by staying true to his unusual musical inclinations is inspiring to many in Nashville, as artists typically have to prove themselves radio-friendly before they can delve into less traditional material. Yet Hayes has broken into the mainstream by sounding different.
"Not only is it good for Walker, it's good for all of us, because it can break the mold and open up creative doors . . . maybe we can aim for something else we thought wouldn't work," said hit songwriter Nicolle Galyon, a co-writer and vocalist on Hayes's somber track "Halloween," about the metaphorical mask you put on when you're not comfortable in your own skin. "Walker is getting to be Walker."
Still, it's been a long journey. A particularly gut-wrenching song on the album is the final track, titled "Craig," which Hayes spent months writing by himself. It stems from one of the most emotional moments of his life, after the dealership took away his minivan when he lost his second record deal, and he couldn't afford a new car with enough seatbelts for all his kids.
One day, Hayes was at his son's softball game when a man named Craig and his wife, a couple he knew from church, drove up in two cars. Craig walked over to Hayes and handed him a piece of paper. It was the title to one of his cars, big enough for Hayes's whole family. Craig wanted nothing in return.
The song is the type of uncomfortably honest music that Hayes is most comfortable writing — and after so many years of never knowing whether it would amount to anything, he finds it almost surreal that he can release it to the world.
"I think Walker has grown into something that I will literally fight to the death until everyone has heard," McAnally said. "That quote is extreme — but truthfully, I just believe in him. As a songwriter, I think he's a master. And he's somebody that should ultimately be shaping our format because he has a lane of his own."